Despite playing against a six-win Sacramento Kings team that hadn’t won at home since Nov. 5, the Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t rid themselves of suspense on Wednesday night. Portland held a lead for much of this game, effectively bringing the shovel and digging the hole. Though when all was said and done, they were the ones buried under in 125-121 loss.
This loss — the Blazers’ eighth defeat in nine road games to start 2021-22 — put a damper on both Jusuf Nurkic’s marquee night (28 points, 17 rebounds, five assists), as well as Damian Lillard’s (30 points, 10 assists) and Nassir Little’s 16-point performance. Unfortunately for the Blazers, the Kings also had players have arguably their best performances of the season.
Portland heads to its dinner tables for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving festivities with a 10-9 record, stagnating them at No. 6 in the Western Conference. Here are some quarter-for-quarter thoughts on the game.
Wednesday night’s game opened with something of an All-Star Game vibe; Portland certainly brought their offense to Sacramento, but their defense was left somewhere on the plane. Four minutes in, the Kings were on pace for a 54-point first quarter, largely taking advantage of the Blazers’ defensive Achilles heel: corner 3-pointers.
Offensively, Portland’s offense showed similarities to its preseason form, seeking out Jusuf Nurkic for touches on a possession-for-possession basis. There were pocket passes, pick-and-roll screen slips, post-ups, and even re-posts after the Kings eventually got with the program and sent double teams. To illustrate: Nurkic’s season-high, 20 points on Opening Night against Sacramento, were quickly in jeopardy with the Bosnian center putting in a 14-point, 10-rebound, 2-assist first quarter. And no, there’s nary a typo in that last sentence.
Also of note was the Blazers’ rotation adjustment with Anfernee Simons (illness) being out. Dennis Smith Jr. was brilliant, stabilizing Portland’s second unit offense alongside Nassir Little and Larry Nance Jr., with active hands on defense; he was a +10 within three minutes. Portland hung 36 points on the Kings’ 25th-ranked defense on 16-of-25 shooting for a four-point advantage.
One surefire sign that Nassir Little’s development is real: the Blazers’ coaching staff is drawing up designed plays for him, as opposed to solely relying on his relentless motor. He owned the first four minutes, using high-arching floaters, acrobatic finishes, and defense-to-offense sequences.
It could’ve been merely a by-product of playing a Kings defense that struggles perennially, but the success of the Blazers’ role players was almost enough to make one forget … wait a second, this team has Damian Lillard too. He introduced himself in a major way midway through the quarter, a development that would’ve been more enjoyable if Portland weren’t giving those points right back to De’Aaron Fox in the lane.
It was reassuring that Portland’s usage of Nurkic — whose nickname is now apparently “Roast Beast” according to the Blazers’ broadcast graphic!? — wasn’t a one-quarter spectacle. The trio of Nurkic, Powell, and Lillard combined for 49 first-half points. Robert Covington made his cameo in the recap in dubious fashion, getting ejected after a scoreless 15-minute night for “throwing” his facemask towards an official. That capped off a remarkably-memorable second quarter, with Portland up 71-69 at the half.
Though they could never prove it on the box score, it never seemed as though the Trail Blazers were far off from producing a complete game. Just as Portland’s defense had started to string together stops — the Kings scored just seven points on their first 11 second-half possessions — the offense, of all things, began to sputter.
It looked a lot like a shopping cart from your local grocery store; all four wheels just never moved in the same direction. To their credit, Portland responded to the uncertainties with timely scores from Lillard and Little. Ever the master tactician on offense, Lillard took note of the Kings in the penalty, and went hunting, using Davion Mitchell’s phone-booth defense against him.
Sacramento almost always had a response, playing through Harrison Barnes and Damian Jones, working the pick-and-roll and taking the Blazers’ bigs out of the paint. The big kicker: since the start of the second quarter, Sacramento has led just 36 seconds. Yet, they somehow took a 93-92 lead into the fourth.
After three quarters of having Nurkic take their lunch money, Sacramento went all-in on a new strategy right away. 6-foot-11 Damian Jones as the primary defender, 6-foot-11 Marvin Bagley camped in the paint, and if that weren’t enough, each of Sacramento’s guards taking “digs,” or brief lunges at him, testing Nurkic’s sometimes-inconsistent patience. It paid dividends.
Seeing Jones and Bagley trading highlight plays in almost-competitive fashion felt must-watch, solely because you know about the Blazers’ affinity for backup bigs who just so happened to play in Sacramento. Those two made life difficult. Heading into tonight, Portland was a healthy 7-0 when their second unit won their scoring battle, and they helped render that null-and-void.
Down the stretch, Portland went to what always worked: anything involving Lillard and Nurkic. Unfortunately, the Kings’ energy proved superior to that of the Blazers. Davion Mitchell, in particular, did enough to make life tough for Lillard, and hit the double whammy by hitting clutch shots down the stretch. (It deserves a note that the Kings closed this game out with De’Aaron Fox on the sidelines for the final six minutes, this after he ranked No. 9 in clutch points last season). Deservedly so, Portland allowed one to slip away.
The Blazers brace themselves for the second game of the three-game road trip, starting with a matchup with the NBA’s No. 1 team, the Golden State Warriors on Friday, 7:00 pm PT.